Trenace Dorsey-Hollins has been talking to parents in Fort Worth about the Texas Legislature’s plan to expand school choice through a voucher-like program.
More often than not, though, parents struggle to understand what vouchers are — let alone education savings accounts. Dorsey-Hollins, the executive director of Parent Shield Fort Worth, explains to them that lawmakers want to give parents public money to pay for private school tuition or other educational expenses.
More questions follow.
Parents, students and all schools in Fort Worth are likely to feel some ripple effects of the proposed education savings accounts program if it becomes law. Many want to know how the program would be put in place, how the state would ensure accountability for public dollars and students’ academic performance — and even how much money some parents may receive through the program.
In theory, Dorsey-Hollins supports the idea of education savings accounts or other voucher-like programs. However, too many questions about these policy initiatives have gone unanswered, she said.
What is school choice?
Texas already has school choice. Parents can decide to send their child to a traditional public school, charter school, private school or homeschool.
School districts even offer their own form of choice. Some, such as Fort Worth ISD, allow parents to send their children to a specialized school, like the Young Women’s Leadership Academy, instead of their traditional neighborhood school.
Many districts also have open enrollment, which allows parents to send their children to schools outside their district.
The current debate is over whether the state should allow parents to use taxpayer dollars to fund their child’s private school tuition.
“My concern, and even the concern that some of the parents who I’ve spoken with, is that the voucher still may not be enough to provide Black and brown children with the adequate education,” Dorsey-Hollins said.
The likelihood of some sort of voucher-like program becoming law is high, said Gabriel Huddleston, an education professor at Texas Christian University. The effects on Fort Worth and Texas are still up in the air — and the devil will be in the details, he said.
“This is going to have ramifications for a long period of time, especially in a place like Fort Worth that is so diverse, has so many different schools and has so many different charters,” Huddleston said.
The possible impacts vary. Education in Fort Worth is spread among 12 independent school districts, 15 charter networks, more than 30 private schools, and homeschools.
Supporters say education savings accounts could level the playing field for lower income families and allow them to find an education that best fits their students.
Opponents say education savings accounts are the latest iteration of school vouchers seen in other states and would mean fewer state dollars for publicly funded education and keep de facto segregation in place, especially in lower- income districts.
Much of lawmakers’ focus is on education savings accounts, a proposal that would directly give parents a set amount of money that could be used on education expenses, such as private school tuition, uniforms or homeschool curriculum.
Gov. Greg Abbott is supporting the proposal.
How can choice be expanded?
Across the nation, states have used three general policies to give parents taxpayer dollars to fund their child’s private school tuition. They are:
- Vouchers are the most-talked-about private school choice expansion. They are state-funded scholarships that pay for students to attend private school. Across the nation, 14 states have a voucher program.
- Scholarship tax credits allow people and companies to use a portion of their taxes as a donation to private school scholarship organizations. So far, 17 states have this program.
- Education savings accounts are state-funded grants deposited into a special account that parents can use to pay for private school tuition, tutoring, textbooks and other education-related expenses. Five states have education savings account programs.
Education savings accounts are different from traditional voucher programs. Funds are directly given to parents. In traditional voucher programs, schools receive the funds instead.
Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick, who leads the Republican-dominated Senate, has prioritized an education savings account bill from Sen. Brandon Creighton, a Republican from Conroe who chairs the upper chamber’s education committee.
Creighton’s Senate Bill 8 proposes giving families $8,000 in taxpayer funds per student. Only families with students who spent the past year enrolled in public school or starting their education would be eligible; families with children currently in private school or homeschooled would not be eligible.
Independent school districts with fewer than 20,000 students would receive $10,000 for each student who leaves for a private school. Districts would receive that extra money for two years. Typically, schools receive about $6,000 in state funding for each student.
Sen. Mayes Middleton, R-Wallisville, previously introduced similar legislation earlier in the session. His measure called for $10,000 to be put in an education savings account.
Sens. Paul Bettencourt, R-Houston, and Angela Paxton, R-McKinney, introduced similar legislation. Unlike other measures, Bettencourt’s Senate Bill 2354 has income caps and has the support of the Texas Private School Association, which wants a more limited education savings account program.
Superintendent Angélica Ramsey knows Fort Worth ISD, the largest school district in the city, could be the most impacted if an education savings account program is established.
Her district faces a multitude of issues: declining enrollment, financial challenges, substandard academics and lack of confidence from the community. Already, Fort Worth ISD is cutting jobs so staffing levels match enrollment and district finances.
With education savings accounts, Ramsey expects the district to lose more students and force her administration to make more cuts.
“Imagine having to tell teachers every year your school’s going to lose more and more teachers and your class sizes are getting bigger and bigger because more students are opting out,” Ramsey said at a Women’s Policy Forum event in March.
Huddleston, the TCU professor, brought up another concern that cuts across all 12 school districts and even charters — funding.
He expects publicly funded schools, which includes charters, to take a hit in how much money they receive from the state, especially as lawmakers consider easing the burden of property taxes.
Several districts under 20,000 students could see some costs offset because of a clause in Creighton’s bill that gives extra funding for each student who leaves.
But how much funding traditional schools and charters could lose is up in the air.
“At the end of the day, what you’re trying to predict are the choices that parents are going to exercise,” Huddleston said.
‘Zero to 60 without a very clear plan’
Kate Wisniewski, an education consultant who has worked more than a decade in the field, backs the idea of education savings accounts, but she has reservations on how state leaders are proposing such a program.
Initially proposing a universal program makes sense politically because lawmakers are likely to make concessions, she said. But the idea of diverting millions — possibly billions — of dollars to families with children already enrolled in private schools does not sit well with her.
“You have to look at the reality: There are funding challenges in our traditional K-12 system and to go from zero to 60 without a very clear plan for implementation gives me some pause,” Wisniewski said. “I think it would be better to position this legislation as a tiered multi-year approach.”
Wisniewski pointed to Arkansas as an example of a slower roll out of an education savings account program with caps and limited eligibility, such as students with special needs and children at low performing schools. In that state, the first year is limited to students enrolled in an F-rated school; in the second, it expands to students at a D-rated school; and, in the third year, all students are eligible.
If Texas legislators adopted a similar approach, students at 23 Fort Worth ISD campuses, which are not rated because they scored lower than a C, would be eligible for an education savings account.
While funding for public schools is an issue, Wisniewski pointed out that billions of dollars in federal stimulus were directed toward ISDs and charters because of the pandemic — much of which has not all been spent yet. The 12 school districts in Fort Worth have spent about 56% of their combined $625.4 million in federal COVID-19 funds, which expire in 2024, according to a Georgetown University-assembled dashboard of funds.
“To only be concerned about choice because of funding implications requires a much deeper and more complex conversation,” she said.
While public school leaders fear losing more students, Wisniewski does not expect an education savings account program to speed that up. Most families likely will stick with their current school, she said.
‘That’s a little scary’
Dorsey-Hollins, leader of Parent Shield, said one piece lacking from current proposals is academic accountability – namely less state accountability – especially if students switch to private schools.
Some would celebrate that. Not Dorsey-Hollins, who sees the accountability system as one of the few pieces of data parents have to hold their schools accountable. That might not be the case with private schools.
“That’s a little scary,” Dorsey-Hollins said.
Research on vouchers and similar programs is mixed on the effect on student outcomes. Because public and private schools often don’t use the same test, comparing outcomes is challenging.
However, research on small and large voucher programs suggests increased competition made public schools slightly improve.
In 2020, the National Bureau of Economic Research examined how Florida’s private school choice program affected outcomes in public schools. Researchers found some benefits were seen when expanding school choice options for both lower income and more affluent public school students, including higher standardized test scores, lower absenteeism and suspension rates.
In her conversations with parents, they ask Dorsey-Hollins whether education savings accounts would pay for their child’s full tuition in private school. Most likely not, she tells parents.
The average private school tuition in Fort Worth is $14,196, according to a Report analysis. Private school tuition varies greatly. Some schools have sliding tuition scales based on income. Others have a flat monthly fee. Some private schools charge anywhere from $2,000 up to more than $27,000.
“For parents who are already struggling, how are they going to be able to provide supplemental income and keep that going? It’s going to be hard,” she said.
Tracking students could be challenging
De facto segregation still persists in schools in Fort Worth, Huddleston said.
For example, easterns parts of Fort Worth ISD are nearly all students of color — and have some of the worst performing campuses. On the west side, Fort Worth ISD schools have larger populations of white students and include some of the best performing campuses.
By law, they are not segregated. However, where people choose to live and send their children to school has played a role.
Huddleston, though, does not expect segregation to worsen if a voucher-like program becomes law. Instead, the status quo would remain.
“It definitely would solidify it in a lot of ways, especially if you had a lot of parents who exercise the choice to remove their kids completely from schools,” Huddleston said.
Tracking that effect already is difficult. If a student remains in a publicly funded school, the state records their transfer. However, if a student starts homeschooling or goes to a private school it is more difficult.
The Texas Education Agency tracks whenever students in seventh grade and higher withdraw from a public school. TEA data can give an indication of the movement of students to homeschooling and private schools, but not a full picture.
“If we ever want to get to a more integrated world, especially in terms of our schools, it’s going to become that much more difficult in the state of Texas with vouchers on board,” Huddleston said.
‘It’s going to be a major thing’
Dorsey-Hollins wants parents to be at the forefront of the debate over education savings accounts and other voucher-like programs. Parents need to weigh in on whether these ideas will be beneficial to their children — and to Fort Worth.
“It’s going to be a major thing that’s going to affect Fort Worth, children, parents, schools — everything,” she said. “I feel like we need more information on what exactly the details would be before we can make a good decision and say, ‘Yes, we’re on board’ or ‘No, we’re not.’”
The Senate is expected to pass an education savings account program, which earned the approval from the chamber’s education committee. The House will likely decide whether it dies or becomes law. Rural House members likely will be the bellwether, Huddleston said.
“If you don’t see much resistance from them, then I think that’s a telltale that it probably has a good chance of passing,” the TCU professor said.
Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at email@example.com or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.